Friday, October 24, 2008
By Peter Haslund, who is a professor of political science and global studies at Santa Barbara City College, and a member of the Santa Barbara Coalition for Global Dialogue
I have a vivid memory of passing the Statue of Liberty as our ship entered the New York harbor in March of 1949. I was a nine-year-old immigrant from Denmark. My mother and I had made the tough decision to leave Copenhagen and embark on a new life in the land of liberty, hope, and opportunity. I had heard so many stories about what was to become my newly adopted country, and Ms. Liberty seemed to say it all! It was, after all, America that had come to the rescue of Europe in 1944, and it was America that now beckoned to those in search of freedom and a better way of life.
It may be overstating the case to suggest that America’s image is now in shreds, but at a minimum we are no longer considered that shining beacon on the hill. Our foreign policy is often linked with imperialism, our immigration policy is seen as discriminatory, our financial policy seems driven by greed, and our efforts to claim the moral high ground in other areas is often rejected. Our conference on Saturday, October 25 at Santa Barbara City College will explore the many dimensions – political, economic, environmental and diplomatic -- of this troublesome decline.
An overview of our foreign policy may illustrate the point. A Cold War with the Soviet Union led to a shooting war in Korea in 1950 and in Vietnam fifteen years later. By that time, we had become the self-appointed global policeman, seemingly unaware of the costs and liabilities of such a claim. When we were finally able to extract ourselves from this quagmire in Southeast Asia, we felt a sense of relief that we had – at long last – learned something about the limits of military engagement as a way of solving global problems.
That lesson was remembered when the first President Bush asked his generals not to give him “another Vietnam.” Operation Desert Storm was not a unilateral action based on a false premise and no exit strategy. It was a multilateral commitment to reject outright aggression, and the military action had clear limits. But these applications were all tossed aside when the younger Bush took the helm.
Why is it so difficult to remember that troops stationed in another country for any length of time come to be seen as an occupation force? Is it that we see only what we want to see and that our inclination is to underestimate the ability of an adversary while overestimating our own capacity? Our side is invincible; their side will surely crumble!
As a result we have spent more than a trillion dollars on a distant war that has so far taken the lives of over 4,000 young American (and who knows how many Iraqis), initially justified on grounds that Saddam’s regime posed an immediate threat to the security of the United States. And when we learned that no such threat existed, our government offered arguments that amounted to an “Ooops --- well, we are there now!”
This was the first significant preemptive war undertaken by the United States, and we were wrong about the reasons for doing it. Though our action was not quite unilateral, our traditional allies made clear that this was a bad move, and that we would be largely alone if we took this step. Recall the acrimony between the US and France, and the flap about “freedom fries” served in the Congressional cafeteria.
Then came Abu Grahib. The news that American soldiers had tortured detainees amounted to a rejection of a fundamental American value. While others might do this; Americans could not! But the evidence was undeniable. Images of humiliated naked Iraqis or the picture of a man standing on a water bucket wired for electrocution – all of these images conveyed the same astonishing conclusion. We had crossed the line; the world’s confidence in the American dream was shaken.
At home, our national conversations have become more strident. Homeland Security justified the increased use of wiretaps on grounds that we were at war with Terrorism. The 450 or so “Detainees” at Guantanamo Bay have only recently been allowed access to legal counsel or any of the evidence against them on grounds that they were not legitimate POW’s. And most recently, our crisis of confidence has been expanded by a greed inspired financial meltdown, likely to impact the lives of all Americans for years to come.
There is in all of this an unspoken question, derived from deep within: Have we lost our way? Have we lost sight of the ideals that brought us to the world stage as the bastion of hope, equality and justice, and who are we without those ideals?
On October 25, our panelists will attempt a response with advice for the next President about how to navigate such a return. -by Peter Haslund, professor of political science and global studies at SBCC, and a member of the Santa Barbara Coalition for Global Dialogue.
Panelists Stan Roden, the former Santa Barbara County District Attorney, who is now a mediator and lecturer in Political Science and International Law; author Helena Cobban; UCSB Professor of International Political Economy Benjamin Cohen; SBCC Coordinator for Environmental Studies Adam Green; and SBCC Chair of Global and International Studies Peter Haslund. Admission is free at the Fe Bland Auditorium on West Campus, 721 Ciff Drive, Santa Barbara. Global Networking Hour starts at 8 a.m., with the program beginning at 9 a.m. and continuing until 12:30 on Saturday, October 25.
The event, titled “American’s Tattered Global Image: What Can the Next President Do?” is sponsored by the nonpartisan Santa Barbara Coalition for Global Dialogue.
Friday, October 24, 2008